The 1974-75 Imperial cars

1974 Imperial LeBaron

The last Imperials to be sold as part of a separate brand, the 1974-1975 LeBarons were basically elevated Chrysler New Yorkers, with unique styling and unique features on a big, comfortableImperial logo, powerful base. (From 1957 to 1966 Imperials were a distinct entity, with separate bodies and styling.)

That’s not to say they were simply a rebadged Chrysler, because they were not; Imperials remained more technologically advanced in their features and options, assembled more carefully, and tested more thoroughly. They were also larger than the largest Chrysler, in length though not in wheelbase.

The 1974 Imperial was both brand new and rather old; Chrysler had re-designed all its full sized cars for 1974, including Gran Fury, Monaco, Newport, and New Yorker, but the basic technology carried over from past years — 440 engines, Torqueflite three-speed automatics with rear wheel drive, torsion-bar front suspensions, leaf-springs rear suspensions, unit-body construction, and the usual Mopar tricks and techniques common to Plymouths and Dodges as well as Imperials.

For 1974 Chryslers and Imperials alike, new rubber mounts were added to the suspension, part of the “Torsion-Quiet Ride.” This added insulation from bumps and jolts, at the cost of some cornering precision — still delivering better cornering than equivalent Cadillacs and Lincolns.

torsion-quiet

Chrysler was optimistic, going into 1974, that they would do well with what they called “the first in a new generation of luxury motorcars,” but between the oil crisis, higher prices, and a much better advertised new Cadillac, Imperial sales did not live up to its promise.

Visually, the main difference between the 1973 Imperial and the 1974 models was a front grille similar to that of the Lincoln Continental, with turn signals at the front corners; its unique feature was a waterfall grille, made of different-width bars, which would be a Chrysler styling element through the 1990s. The tail and sides were also restyled, and the belt-line was lower, for a more spacious look inside.

As an existing model with a moderate restyle, Imperial avoided the tackiness that was becoming common: it had no opera windows, coach lights, or (following Cadillac) chromed plastic grilles, sticking with its chrome-plated zinc grille, gracious curves, and hardtop styling.

imperial dashboard

The company declared, in advertising literature:

These are Chrysler Corporation's top-of-the-line models...Every Imperial we build has 12-15 miles put on it before it ever gets delivered. . . Our inspection includes over two hundred items. . . a 440 cubic-inch 4 barrel V-8 is standard. . . Air conditioning with automatic temperature control... It truly is the Imperial of luxury cars.

Standard features included air conditioning, power steering and windows, and four-wheel power disc brakes (highly unusual for the time — only Corvette also had it standard). All Imperials were automatics in these years. Imperial also had electronic ignition, as it had since 1972, and the first standard steel radial 40,000-mile tires in the industry. The digital clock was accurate enough to be officially designated a chronometer, a rarity in those times; the glove box had an integral coin holder, the stereo had automatic search tuning, and the gauges (gas, temperature, alternator) included warning lights.

It rode on the same 124-inch chassis as Newport but had a 231 inch length, roughly the same as Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham and Lincoln Continental Town Car (in a day before Town Car was known as a fleet.) Underneath, they used the same basic unibody construction and torsion-bar suspension as the other Chryslers, with perhaps more welds and different tuning.

car seats

Inside, Imperial had standard automatic climate control; for 1974 it had two more cooling outlets in the dash and a stronger blower. The standard interior had velour upholstery, lighted vanity mirrors, power antenna and trunk release, rear seat lavaliere straps, folding armrests, individual reading lamps, and rear headrest pillows. Optional was tufted (buttoned) "Corinthian Leather" — the first car to have it, something many Chrysler Cordoba owners aren't aware of.

Interiors with red velour were especially luxurious, featuring a simulated Brazilian rosewood dashboard with silver accents. Buyers could also get power seats, tilt/telescope steering wheels, power sunroofs, alarms, heavy duty suspensions, leather, power trunk release, and a towing package. Nearly all buyers took the power seats, and most took the tilt-wheel.

1977 440 V8 engine

Imperial came with the 440 V8 (230 net horsepower) as standard equipment; it provided a wide power band with high torque, and the reliable TorqueFlite transmission was tuned for soft shifts.

There were three 1974-75 Imperial bodies: a four door hardtop, two door hardtop, and two-door Crown Coupe. For 1974, the four door was by far the most popular, with over 10,000 sold; it was also the cheapest, at $7,230 (keeping in mind you could still get a good car for under $3,000.) About half as many two-door hardtops were sold.

Midyear, Chrysler launched a LeBaron Crown Coupe, ostensibly celebrating the brand’s 50th anniversary, painted gold (with a gold interior of velour or leather) for the gold anniversary. Its main visual differences were the use of opera windows (for $527 extra), a trendy feature of the time, and the use of padded vinyl in the front of the roof, rather than the back. Roofwork for the vinyl was done by ASC (American Sun Roof Corporation).

Crown Coupe sales were hardly worth mentioning in 1974 — just 57 were made — but it would be relatively popular in 1975.

Matt Wappler pointed out that 1974 Imperials had no grille extension cutouts or bumper cutouts; the grille had vertical lines grouped in sections, with some thicker than others but none protruding beyond the rest; a “hoop” design headliner (rather than vacuum-formed fiberboard covered in cloth, as was used in 1975); a 65 amp alternator on the right side of the engine; and a blowre type rear defogger.

1974 imperial car from Chrysler

For 1975, air conditioning, tinted glass, and power disc brakes and windows were standard. New to Imperial was an automatic beam changer (like Smartbeam). An Imperial accessory group added things which should have been standard: floor mats, carpeted spare tire cover, and right outside rearview mirror.

Beyond the usual lists of features were items that explained the high cost of the car versus a loaded Chrysler, including articulated left windshield wiper arms. As the sixteen-inch blade neared the edge of the windshield, they pivoted to cover another four inches. The telescoping steering column would remain unusual for years.

Writing for the Walter P. Chrysler Club magazine, Sandy Block pointed out that the 1975s had a revised grille with wider spacing between the bars, and which extended down to the bumper section for greater cooling; a new dark red color; a smooth brushed velour (replacing the ribbed velour of 1974); color-keyed (and smaller) steering wheels; and loop-pile carpet replacing the shag. A new standard feature was an illuminated vanity mirror in the passenger-side visor.

Functionally, 1975s had platinum-tipped spark plugs said to last 50,000 miles; a 500 amp battery (up from 440); an electric rear defroster; a standard 2.7:1 axle ratio (the old 3.23 was optional); a catalytic converter; no starter interlock; and a new automatic height control (which raised the rear of the car under heavy loads), standard. The price and weight both shot up possibly as a result of the height control, and possibly also due to inaccurate weight estimates in 1974 (or 1975).

imperial car

A new option, reflecting the fuel crisis, was the fuel pacer system, which included fender-mounted turn signal lamps; the left-hand light would go on if you pushed the gas beyond a certain point to exercise the 440.

Even fewer were made, with roughly 60% as many four-doors, one-quarter as many two-door hardtops, and — oddly — 1,641 Crown Coupes, versus 57 in 1974. Most 1975 Imperials were made in 1974; production ended in June 1975. Tellingly, only 3,921 orders for Imperials were from customer orders — the remainder were ordered by dealers to keep in stock. Canadian sales remained roughly the same as in the year before, while American sales took a hit.

When the Imperial was morphed into a Chrysler, the opera windows and padded vinyl top appeared, and these seemed popular.

Dr. David George Briant, writing in the Walter P. Chrysler Club magazine about the 1973 Imperials (which had the same powertrain and basic suspension architecture), said:

... the large convex-sided "fuselage" shaped Imperials provided tremendous comfort and superior highway manners. They looked big, and they were! ... the car responded crisply to her controls, and moved out with alacrity. ...

  1974 Imperial 1975 Imperial
Price $7,230 - $7,856 $8,900 - $9,277
Weight 4,770 - 4,862 4,965 - 5,165
Production 14,483 8,830

While impressive in any venue, Imperial came into its own as a vehicle in motion. The engineering/manufacturing team performed magnificently in designing and producing hardware that operated precisely in sync so as to provide an outstanding experience. Cruising at Interstate speeds found an Imperial virtually loafing, while the driver needed to pay attention to business, lest the hurtling package ease well beyond legal limits. The speed control option helped in this situation. ... Potholes and equally poor and undulating surfaces were passed over with dignity as the suspension performed as designed — with apparent ease.

Motor Trend found that the Imperial bested the Eldorado and Lincoln Mark IV; Consumers Guide found it to be the best American luxury car.

Jon Denson of the WPC Club wrote about some of the features of these Imperials and the later Chrysler New Yorker Broughams:

The concealed headlamps were another graceful addition. Some people even claim that the car looks better with the headlight doors open, to show the almost evil looking, piercing round headlights. It almost reminds some of the freestanding headlights on Imperials of 1961-1963.

The rear-ends were also highly styled, but with a mild elegance. The trunk-lid had a raised center, almost like a bustle-back, and the teardrop taillights were mounted vertically on both sides. The taillights were framed with thick chrome trim, which extended out at the top of the light. Silver accents lined the edges of the taillights.

Nothing could come close to the styling of these, fine automobiles, which were definitely way ahead of the competitors, in terms of luxury. It was the last Imperial, but it was worthy of the name.

Several factors conspired to kill Imperial; among other things, some pointed out that buyers had to go to the same showroom and service department as the lowly Plymouth (and quite probably many of the people there did not treat Imperial buyers any better), while other luxury car buyers and owners could be coddled at specialty shops. Sales were always low compared with Cadillac, whose Deville alone sold 170,000 units in 1974 (with a factory price starting at $7,867, around the same as the top-end Imperial); profits must have been slim at best despite the pricing and sharing with Chrysler. (The Fleetwood Brougham, which started at $9,517, also outsold Imperial, with 18,250 sold in 1974.)

Problems with the economy hurt sales, and Chrysler was badly hurt by their large investment in big cars (and stagnation of their small car line) just before gas shortages made them unfashionable and impossible to sell. The runaway hit of 1975 was the midsized Chrysler Cordoba — with a luxury look, feel, and name at a lower price and with less fuel consumption.

Cadillac, admittedly, seemed almost unaffected by these issues — they sold 173,000 Devilles in 1975, and even the more expensive Seville, based on the low-end Chevy Nova compact but with completely different looks inside and out, moved over 16,000 units, despite a base price of $12,479. (Imperial for 1975, as a reminder, had a base price of $8,900 but sold under 9,000 units.)

1975 new yorker

While the Imperial brand would only last until 1975 — and the signs were on the wall in 1974, when a brochure listed the “Chrysler Imperial.” The cars would carry on until 1978, rebadged as the “Chrysler New Yorker Brougham.” While the Chrysler versions had a lower base price, as many standard features were turned into options, most buyers ironically paid the same price in the end, as they opted for the extras that had been standard on Imperial.

1974 imperial lebaron ad

Imperial Club • 1969-73 Imperials • 1976-78 New Yorker Broughams

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